21 May 2009

Otherworldly visions to feed your mind

A recent conversation over at Vamp's Worldview got me thinking about some of the more memorable science-fiction novels I've read over the years. These definitely aren't among the best-known works in the genre, but they are worth reading if you like SF that's written for grown-ups and doesn't pull its punches.

Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan (1977): In the near future, on the Moon, astronauts discover the dead body of a man in a spacesuit. The mystery begins when it turns out that the corpse has been lying there on the Moon for fifty thousand years. This seems impossible since (a) there could not have been a civilization on Earth 50,000 years ago which was advanced enough to send men to the Moon (if there had been, there would still be abundant evidence of it on Earth today and we would already know about it), while (b) evolution on another planet would not produce a species identical to human beings. So where did the dead man on the Moon come from? It's a riveting story, one of the few SF novels purely about the struggle to solve a scientific mystery.

Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement (1953): A space probe has crashed on a bizarre alien planet whose surface gravity ranges from 3 to 700 times that of Earth; humans trying to recover the probe must deal with an environment and intelligent natives very different to anything familiar. It's a well-thought-out exploration of an odd premise, with one of the more likable alien species in SF.

Gold the Man by Joseph Green (1971): After Earth suffers a series of ineffectual attacks by giant aliens, two scientists (one of them genetically engineered for superhuman intelligence) are sent to infiltrate the aliens' home planet and bring back information -- inside a control room built into the brain of a captured alien, who becomes a sort of zombie controlled by the humans. The protago-nist, long uncomfortable with his own altered humanity, finds himself torn between his own species and the giants.

A Plague of Pythons by Frederik Pohl (1965): Absolute power corrupts absolutely. After a Soviet experiment gives a small number of people the power to take control of other humans' bodies remotely (rather as demons were thought to "possess" people in the Dark Ages), they unleash a reign of terror on the world. Being able to do anything they choose to anyone anywhere, with no fear of reprisal, over time they sink into utter depravity. When an "ordinary" man is offered a chance to join these "gods", he learns what temptation really means.

The Twilight Men (translation of Wenn das der Führer wüßte) by Otto Basil (1968): What would the world be like if the Nazis had won the war? Twenty years after the great victory, much-enlarged Germany remains a militarized nation with troops holding down an empire spanning half the globe; the regime is as corrupt and cynical as aging totalitarian states everywhere tend to become, while the propaganda-brainwashed German masses stagnate in superstition. The Jews are, of course, virtually extinct. The world lives under a tense nuclear stalemate between the two rival superpowers, Germany and Japan -- but of course those regimes prove less adept at keeping the situation stable than the US and the USSR did in real history. As the final war begins, the two huge rival empires start to disintegrate in chaos and rebellion.

When Heaven Fell by William Barton (1995): The conquest of Earth by more advanced aliens is a common SF theme, but what would it really be like? Set about twenty years after the conquest of Earth by the "Master Race" (who rule most of the galaxy), this story gives us no clever gimmick or whiz-kid hero implausibly defeating vastly-superior technology, but rather the remants of humanity struggling to adapt to a ghastly situation it is utterly helpless to escape. Since the Master Race prefer to rule conquered planets through merceneries and intermediaries, a few privileged niches exist for those willing to collaborate; the worst horrors lie not in what they do to us, but in what some humans do to others -- in part, to squelch well-intentioned revolts which could achieve nothing but provoke horrific retaliation. This will make you feel very glad to remember that we're probably, in fact, alone in the universe.


Anonymous Blurber said...

"Inherit the Stars" is, I believe, a story about how humans had originated on a planet that became the asteroid belt. In the sense that it's about something on the Moon that was not expected to be there, it's similar to Arthur C. Clarke's "The Sentinel."

21 May, 2009 09:22  
Blogger vamp said...

Funny thing, that book, Inherit the Stars, was published when I graduated high school.

A bit of a different scenario is when I was a kid, my dad had told me a story, after he had come back from the Officer's Club, tipsy, about spaceships coming from other far off civilized planets that dropped off two of each nationality on Earth. The white, black, asian and other ships dumped off their "adam and eve". I was about 10 years old, and fascinated by this idea too. I think that's a book too. Can't recall the name of the book, but that idea has also stuck with me for years.

I can't remember anything lately, damn "change".

21 May, 2009 09:44  
Blogger mendip said...

Thanks for the list! I confess I've not read much science fiction, (I'm more of a dark fantasy fan), but some of these sound quite intriquing. A Plague of Pythons is one I am familiar with - great story, and a very good ending...

21 May, 2009 16:37  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Vamp, that theme puts me in mind of a most bizarre human-origins SF novel from Germany I read years ago, Das Paulus-Projekt. I don't know whether it has ever been translated into English or not. I doubt it would sell in the US -- it had racial elements that would not go down well.

Mendip: A Plague of Pythons is one I am familiar with - great story, and a very good ending...

".....he slipped the coronet casually back atop his head. Only for a while, of course. A very little while. He pledged himself solemnly that there would definitely be no question about that. He would wear it just long enough to clean up all the loose ends -- just that long and not one second longer, he pledged, and knew as he pledged it that he lied."

Yes, that ending has often crossed my mind at odd moments.

I might do a similar list of obscure but worthy fantasy novels too -- this has got my thoughts running along those lines.

21 May, 2009 16:58  
Anonymous Rita said...

I haven't read any of these books.

I am a big fan of the short story & the novella. I've found many SF authors that are masters of this style. Ray Bradbury comes to mind as one. One thing about the SF stories that I enjoy...they really feed the imagination.

22 May, 2009 08:26  
Anonymous Nick M said...

The best SF i ever read...

Well I'm gonna be controversial and cite J L Borges as Sci Fi (well some of his stuff is). I have a dog inj this fight anyway. The wondrous Argentine is quite simply the greatest writer of the C20th full-stop.

I also have a soft-spot for Wyndham and Clarke and, of course, Gibson. What is so good about Gibson? Just this. He is a prose stylist who compares to the master. Who the master? You need to ask? It's Raymond Chandler obviously. One of my books of his has a bit of blurb on the back which says he "writes like a slumming angel". I can't better that. Marlowe is almost as good as Holmes.

I also like Dick's shorts. Dick was mainly bombed out of his box on speed so he lacked the organisation for novels but his shorts are brilliant.

22 May, 2009 14:58  
Blogger Zardoz said...

I love SF as well. My favourite authors are Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein. I have a five volume collection of every short story Dick ever wrote, great stuff! Thanks for the list, I'll look into some of these!

22 May, 2009 15:20  

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